Got political heartburn? It's because the dining has been so rich around here for two years. Though it was never much of a race in Texas, the state has been ground zero for the GOP half of the presidential race for two years. Texas politicos have never been particularly bashful, or even polite, about trying to win promotion to higher offices, but George W. Bush's run for the White House has opened a line of speculation that would make Jim Mattox blush.
Partisan control of the Legislature is at stake, with Republicans poised to grab a majority in both houses for the first time since Reconstruction. There could be an unprecedented Senate vote on a lieutenant governor. Redistricting will dominate the session that begins in January, putting political survivalism and partisan interests in the front seat. Top it all with the regular crises, governmental train wrecks and financial haggling that normally mark the end of an election cycle and the start of a legislative year. It's no wonder people are fumbling for the Maalox.
After all the turmoil of the last couple of years, the prediction here is that you won't see dramatic change in the Legislature on Tuesday. There are five to ten seats in play in the House, depending on your source, and the partisan balance in that chamber is 78 Democrats and 72 Republicans. Republicans will net two seats, possibly three. If they have a huge day, they'll net five. In any case, House Speaker Pete Laney will hold votes from almost all of the Democrats and enough of the Republicans to remain in power. The Senate will remain relatively unchanged as well. Republicans hold a one-vote majority now and could add another one to continue their control of the upper chamber. But real control in the Senate comes when one party has two-thirds of the vote. Neither party is close to 21 votes.
There will probably be no change at all in the state's congressional delegation, although there are four noisy and somewhat expensive contests underway. As for the rest, well, it depends on what happens in other states. If Lt. Gov. Rick Perry becomes governor of Texas, he might be in the position of sending his political thank-yous to voters in the Eastern Daylight Time zone.
Off to the Races, Starting at the Top
Democrat Gene Kelly of Universal City is a perennial on the Texas ballot, relying on his name to get as much as 45 percent of the vote (in a judicial race) without ever getting over the top. And we haven't heard anyone talking seriously about his candidacy for U.S. Senate against Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. Few regard him as more than a political speed bump.
That's why so many people are scratching their heads over Hutchison's huge media buy during the last two weeks of the election cycle. The Dallas senator is spending about $2 million on a statewide TV campaign that features a couple of generic-looking spots on national defense and education. Reporters couldn't even get a peek at the ads until they'd been on television for a week. But it didn't matter -- the spots were on all the time.
Kelly is no threat, however, at least on television. His last financial report said his campaign had $52 in the bank. Hutchison's mid-October report included a cash-on-hand balance of $5.4 million. Whether her ad buy made sense will be in the numbers on Election Day. Gov. Bush hasn't done a single ad in Texas this election cycle and it will be relatively easy to see whether he gets a bigger percentage of the Texas vote than Hutchison. If she runs up the score on Kelly, at least part of the credit should go to her ad campaign. If she doesn't, the analysts can keep scratching their heads over why she spent so much money on a non-race.
Sound and Fury, Signifying High Spending
Four challenges have been particularly noisy. U.S. Reps. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, Ron Paul, R-Clute, Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon and Ken Bentsen, D-Houston, all have had good cause this political year to reach for the airsick bags, but the prognosticators think they should all get out alive.
Sessions outraised his opponent, Regina Montoya Coggins, and was outspent at the mid-October point. But he had $748,000 on hand to her $111,826. Both are running TV ads.
Phil Sudan, the Republican challenging Bentsen, wins the expensive race prize. At mid-October, he'd spent $2.5 million (including an expensive primary) to Bentsen's $785,000. Bentsen listed more cash on hand, but Sudan is self-financing his campaign and has so far been a bottomless pit. Best opposition research morsel, turned up by Bentsen's folks: Sudan is the lawyer who represented Bud Adams when Adams moved the Oilers out of Houston.
Paul outraised and outspent Democrat Loy Sneary two-to-one through mid-October in their rematch, and had $347,000 on hand at the end to Sneary's $49,000.
Thornberry and Curtis Clinesmith, a surprisingly persistent Democrat, got to that mid-October report with the incumbent having outspent the challenger four-to-one.
The Electoral College Could Make Texas Important, After All
The tight presidential race has led to sudden and ubiquitous squealing about the Electoral College. It's usually framed as a question about Gov. Bush winning the popular vote and losing the electoral vote, and about what sort of train wreck might follow. One thing that you can say about that situation is that Texas would suddenly matter again in the presidential race.
The state has been ignored because it's solid Bush country. Nobody on either side thinks Al Gore stands a chance here, so they haven't wasted their money fighting over it. Bush's lead is so big it significantly skews the national polls. You've been hearing for a couple of weeks that the national polls are meaningless -- that a clear view of the presidential race is available only if you have state-by-state results. That's because the state-by-state results will determine the electoral vote. But the national popular vote, driven in part by the overwhelming numbers he's racking up here, could matter.
The Electoral College, for the most part a winner-takes-all system, makes no distinction between a landslide and a narrow victory. (The Electoral College is strange, to be sure. For info on the quirks of the system, check out their official website.)
Texas has 32 Electoral College votes. Barring something bizarre, those belong to Bush, whether he wins with 68 percent of the votes here or 51 percent. Lopsided results, like the one that's expected here, could make for some weird effects. Say, for argument's sake, that Bush comes out of Texas with one million more votes than Gore. That's enough to swamp popular results in Gore's favor in smaller states, or in states where the election is much closer.
Bush's campaign has reportedly been working the angles, trying to figure out what it would do if it won the popular vote and lost the electoral vote on Tuesday. One obvious thing would be to lobby the 538 national electors to cast their votes on the basis of popular voting instead of on the basis of pledges. That's perfectly legal and could make for a strange end to the Year 2000.
And it could make the voting in Texas more important than most have assumed: If the campaign starts to hedge its electoral bets, watch for last-minute efforts to run up the score here and in other safe Bush states. A persistent and entirely unsubstantiated rumor has Gov. Bush resigning immediately if he's elected president, thus handing state business to others so he can concentrate on his transition.
A fight over presidential electors would delay that kind of transition plan by effectively moving Election Day to the end of the year. The electors meet on December 18 and have to have their votes in by December 27. Congress officially counts the votes from the electors on January 6.
Want a whole 'nother can of worms? If there's a tie, the presidential race goes to a vote in Congress. If the presidential contest takes the longest turn possible, the Texas Legislature could be in session before anyone knows who's going to be the governor for the next two years.
A Headline-Stealing Senate Race in Dallas
Control of the Texas Senate started out as the big legislative story of the year and is closing with a bang. It's still the big story, but not all the noise is coming from the expected place. Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, is in real danger of losing his seat to Dr. Bob Deuell, a Greenville Republican whose strong finish has knocked the Democrat back on his heels. Republicans have been hinting strongly for months -- since before their state convention in early summer -- that they were going to invest heavily in the SD-2 race, but Cain and other Democrats apparently didn't believe them.
When it came time to put up or shut up, Deuell put up, beating the incumbent to the television audience by about a week. He never let up, throwing a mountain of money at the race during the last month while Cain was scrambling to catch up. They're closing the contest with something close to parity in television advertising, but Cain was expecting a much bigger advantage.
He also didn't expect such strong opposition from Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Cain has voted with the Houston-based tort reform group most, but not all, of the time. But if Deuell pulls off an upset, TLR will get much of the credit. Deuell's financial report for October shows contributions of $1.1 million and expenditures of $610,135. Not all of the incoming numbers were cash: $486,000 came in the form of in-kind donations of media time from TLR, and that been all the difference in that race.
Deuell hit Cain on television with television news footage from a few years ago, showing Cain hanging out at the beach in San Diego during a conference where he was supposed to be a speaker. The Fox-owned television station that did the original reporting demanded Deuell stop using the copyrighted report, but the ad ran for better than a week before Fox sent its demand letter.
For his part, Cain ran ads touting Deuell's support for vouchers, which aren't popular in rural areas, and with ads telling voters about a Deuell letter to Cain complaining about the state's handgun restrictions around schools and public buildings. Cain was no slouch in the fundraising department, pulling in $764,598 in October. He's using that and later money for an ad that has the head of the Texas Medical Association saying doctors support Cain and not Deuell, who's a family practitioner.
Deuell was on the receiving end of a towel-snap from Richard Harvey, a Tyler businessman who almost beat Cain in 1994. Harvey beat Deuell in the Republican primary this year, but lost the runoff. Now he's mailed out letters to voters in the district essentially calling Deuell and saying he won't endorse in the race. The Deuell folks say they won't respond to that.
Then Cain got popped. Several of his campaign workers ended Halloween night by stopping at an East Dallas restaurant for food. A gang of Deuell's workers were inside (costumed in doctor's scrubs so they could "trick or treat for votes"). They exchanged, um, pleasantries, as the Deuell folks left for the parking lot. But they came storming back in, demanding an explanation for the Cain van in the parking lot that had a load of apparently stolen Deuell signs in the back. The Dallas Police were called.
The Deuell folks caught it all on camera so they could send pictures to reporters and other skeptics like us. Cain issued a statement saying the signs could have been planted in the van, that the "kids" who were driving the van "say they had no knowledge of the signs." At our deadline, Deuell's campaign aides were still debating whether to pursue charges. They did hold a press conference in front of Cain's building. That prompted complaints from the building managers, but didn't excite local media: No television cameras showed up for that event.
Pity Drew Nixon. The senator from Carthage isn't even on the ballot this year. But a Democrat running for judge in Austin has a television ad featuring footage from Nixon's arrest on solicitation charges, accusing the Republican in that race gave Nixon a sweetheart deal by letting him serve his jail time on weekends... Exact quote from a Rick Perry ad in a GOP publication: "On November 7 you have an opportunity to send a message to those who are trashing Texas by voting Republican."
A Most Expensive Texas Senate Race
The race that was supposed to start on the leader board and stay there is immediately to the south of the Cain/Deuell affair. Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, is retiring. The race to succeed him was supposed to be alone in the spotlight, because it's an open seat and because, until the Cain race got on the screen, it was the race to determine the partisan control of the Senate. It's still the most expensive legislative race in the history of the state: During October, Staples raised $965,831 and spent $1.1 million; Fisher raised $440,652 and spent $602,951. A good portion of Fisher's spending in that report came out of his own pocket. That's not reported as a loan, but as expenditures from the candidate for which he intends to get reimbursement. It's a quirk in the campaign finance laws that allows candidates to loan themselves money without putting it down as loans. So long as they check off the reimbursement box, they can pay themselves back with campaign contributions later on.
Our handicappers are putting this race in the Republican column. Staples supporters say the polls look good and are counting on the growth in Montgomery County, a reliably Republican part of the district that has added about 15,000 voters since the last elections. Add a little bounce from the voters in the Rainbow's End RV park in Polk County, and Staples has an edge. Fisher sent a mailer of his own into Republican boxes in Montgomery County, headlined "Gov. Bush prides himself on his ability to work with Democrats. So should we!" It urges voters there to split their tickets. The Staples camp thinks it'll backfire in their favor, and joked about reporting the Fisher mailer as an in-kind donation.
The candidates ended the last week of the campaign with dueling ethics complaints. Fisher says Staples was wrongly claiming an endorsement from the Texas State Troopers Association, which doesn't do endorsements (Staples was their legislator of the year and, according to their lobbyist, has the group's "support" but no endorsement). He got an endorsement and appearance from former Rep. Mark Stiles, D-Beaumont. Fisher touted him as a leader and prominent Bush supporter; Staples called Stiles, now an executive with Trinity Industries in Dallas, a concrete lobbyist. Stiles blasted Staples for claiming to have drafted a bill that protected East Texas water rights and leading a bipartisan walkout on that issue.
Staples' complaint to the Texas Ethics Commission says Fisher violated the state's code of fair campaign practices. And he capped it by announcing in a press conference on the front porch of his home that he won't respond to anything else Fisher says in the race. That's a Bob Bullock knock-off: Bullock ended the conversation in a 1994 race by saying he wouldn't acknowledge Tex Lezar of Dallas.
Ten Stressful Races for the Texas House
Two years ago, Republicans "targeted" so many House races that they were effectively targeting none at all. This year, they're after two open seats and a handful of incumbents, hoping to gain a tie or a slight majority in the House and saying all the while that they've probably done about as much as they can for now, given that current political districts favor Democrats. The hard push will come during redistricting and in the elections that follow. Still, Republicans are spending some serious money trying to win seats they think should be in their columns.
Democrats see the thing a bit differently. Go figure. They hope to pick up an open seat, maybe knock off an incumbent and hold the House with seats to spare.
Eight House members, including seven Democrats and a Republican, face challenges that range from serious to critical. Two open seats are hotly contested, including one now held by a Republican and one now held by a Democrat. We've talked to a mess of folks, and all but a few think the GOP will add a couple of representatives to their column. The predictions of these unnamed but normally reliable political hacks range from a net pickup of no Republicans to a net of seven. Our bet, noted above, is that the Republicans will see a net gain of two and perhaps three seats.
The House Watch List
These are listed in order of the apparent risk to the incumbent or incumbent party:
• Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, faces challenger Ben Bius in a rematch. This is the House district where the Escapees vote. Those folks list as their address a Polk County RV park and then spend most or all of their time touring the country and collecting little state stickers for their back windows. Their right to vote was challenged. Blame fell on local and Austin Democrats. The voters, who already tilt strongly to the GOP, are stirred up and they're voting heavily. That's bad news for Ellis.
• Rep. David Lengefeld, D-Hamilton, is a freshman lawmaker running for reelection to a second term against a Republican who grew up in DeLeon and now lives in Stephenville, Sid Miller. The sign wars probably net out -- both candidates are using the same colors -- but Miller is doing more radio and is getting outside help from the Free Enterprise PAC, which is doing a mail campaign of its own.
• Rep. Bob Turner, D-Voss, has been on the GOP's target list for years. If you look at the numbers, his district is the most Republican area of the state with a Democratic incumbent. Republicans this year went to Brownwood, the biggest city in the district, to recruit challenger Steve Fryar. It's close.
• The open seat currently held by Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, could go either way. Early handicapping went in favor of the Democrat, Jacksonville pharmacist Chuck Hopson. But Paul Woodard Jr., a Palestine banker, has hit hard with attacks on high drug prices and the margins have narrowed. Democrats still hope to pick up a seat that wasn't theirs, but GOP confidence is growing.
• Rep. Ignacio Salinas Jr., D-San Diego, shouldn't be in trouble in this solidly Democratic district. But some locals have turned on him and Darrell Brownlow, a geologist, has gotten voter attention. One trick: He traveled the district on a tractor, getting free coverage from the papers. We would have missed this one but for the money pouring into Brownlow's coffers from outside the district. The D's think Salinas is safe; the R's smell an upset.
• Rep. Robby Cook III, D-Eagle Lake, faces accountant and baseball scout Phil Stephenson of Wharton. This was originally on everyone's radar screen, but even some Republicans have shown up at Cook's fundraising events. Now, the hopes of Texas Republicans are rising with expectations about the governor's chances at Washington, D.C., and they're again pushing this race.
• Rep. Bob Glaze, D-Gilmer, is running against Bill Hollowell, a former House member who has assiduously pushed aside help from the Republicans and other groups that wanted to help win another Republican seat in the Legislature. His own fundraising has been minimal, and his expenditures look like spending in a race run years ago, with money for signs, pens and papers, but little for media and mail and the like. Never mind that: Outside groups like FreePAC are running a good-sized mail program on his behalf, and Democrats are looking over their shoulders.
• Rep. Allan Ritter, D-Nederland, should be safe. But his challenger, Mary Jane Avery, is a well-connected Republican activist with plenty of money and has made a race of it. Folks on both sides say Ritter should win, but say a particularly good day for the GOP could put Avery in the House.
• The race for the open seat currently held by Rep. Sherri Greenberg, D-Austin, would historically be a race settled in the Democratic primary in March. But the district has grown, gotten more conservative on the southwestern end, and on a good GOP day, could go to a Republican. Democrat Ann Kitchen has the Democratic endorsements sewed up. The funding race between her and Republican Jill Warren, however, is about even. Largely because of rocketing television prices in Austin, this could be one of the most expensive House races this year.
• Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, was on the Democrats' radar screen early. They recruited Nacogdoches County Sheriff Joe Evans to run against him, and everybody got excited or nervous depending on their loyalties. Evans' midyear report didn't show much work, however, and the energy seemed to come out of the race. Now, like the masked guy in a cheesy slasher movie, the race has risen again. Evans has money, a hilarious commercial put together by a couple of college students, and could make a close race of it.
Political People and Their Moves
So far, there are two candidates in the quiet contest for Secretary of the Senate, but there are rumors that at least two more applications are on the way. Betty King, who's held the job since 1977, is retiring, and her replacement will be picked in a vote of the Senate later this month. Interested parties apply, write to senators and wait for their own Election Day. The applicants so far: Vatra Solomon, a former teacher and political organizer who has been executive assistant to Sen. Bill Ratliff since 1989, and Patsy Spaw, the Senate's engrossing and enrolling clerk since 1977, when she, along with Mrs. King, was elected a Senate officer. Spaw's letter implied she had King's support; King followed with a letter saying she's staying out of it... Hector Rivero was seen in this space last week using the name of one of the editor's grade school classmates. We apologize for that synaptic misfire and pray warily that it was the last one. Rivero is going Humana to DuPont... Scot Kibbe, legislative director for Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, has signed on with the American Heart Association. He'll be on their Austin legislative team... The Texas Pharmacy Association has hired David Gonzales as "senior director of public affairs," meaning lobbyist, starting at mid-month. Gonzales, a former legislative staffer, has been lobbying for Legend Pharmacies of Texas for four years... Another former denizen of the legislative staff, Ken Whalen, is leaving the Texas Commission for the Blind to become governmental affairs poobah at the Texas Daily Newspaper Association... Former Rep. Charles Finnell, D-Holliday, got a new hip and a new lobby client. He'll represent the Texas Association of Interior Designers. And the left hip is recovering nicely, he says... Tony Grigsby is signing on with Attorney General John Cornyn as a natural resources lawyer. Grigsby, a former executive director of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, had been lobbying for the Texas Civil Justice League, among others. He'll be an assistant attorney general in that division... Convicted: Florita Bell Griffin, a Bush appointee to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, on charges of bribery, theft and money laundering. She was accused of supporting tax credits for housing projects in Bryan in exchange for part ownership of the projects. Her sentencing is set for February. Bush, who doesn't have the power to fire her from the commission, said she should resign.
Quotes of the Week
Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, on the difference between politicking and governing: "I happen to think that we play for our teams at election time, not unlike the Aggies and the Longhorns on Thanksgiving Day. I hope the Republicans win because I share their philosophy. But after that's over with, I put my partisan card in my pocket and we come to Austin, Texas, to do what's right for the State of Texas."
House Speaker Pete Laney, complaining that Perry's stumping against incumbent Democratic House members "betrays the spirit of bipartisan cooperation that we have built in the Legislature in recent years. This campaign by Perry and others in his party fails to measure up to the kind of leadership Gov. Bush and former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock gave for our state, the kind of leadership that Texans respected and admired."
Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, telling his hometown paper that he might seek a promotion if things go well on Election Day: "I have never run for Speaker. But if the Republicans get control of the Texas House, then I will look at running for Speaker."
Norman Newton, head of the Associated Republicans of Texas, predicting no change at the top in the House: "There is a possibility that we could pick up those four seats that are necessary to get us a majority. However, there are three or four Republicans that have pledged to Laney. I know them, and once they give their word to something, that's the end of the hunt."
Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, on why he would be more electable to statewide office than other state senators who are eyeing the position of lieutenant governor should Bush become president: "I think the main thing in running statewide is -- despite what John McCain would like to have us do -- the main thing is still the ability to raise money. I'm fortunate in that I have a broad base of friends and political supporters around the state that have some bucks."
Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 19, 6 November 2000. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2000 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.